River Safety

Rivers are a significant hazard in the New Zealand outdoors, and you'll come across one on most tramping trips. Rivers are affected by the weather and snow melt, and can rise and fall very quickly. If you're not experienced in river crossings or identifying unsafe rivers, then avoid crossing rivers by selecting tracks that use bridges and always be prepared to change your plans to avoid crossing a river.

Try our new interactive learning tool: How to handle rivers like a pro

River Safety



What Makes Rivers so Dangerous?

Many popular tracks have swing bridges or cableways, but not every river is bridged, so trampers often need to cross to carry on along the track. 

Unfortunately river crossing deaths occur in New Zealand each year, so you need skill and sound judgement. Take all river crossings seriously. If in doubt, do not cross.

What often goes wrong?
  • Following rainfall, rivers will rise, sometimes very quickly. Particularly when it is raining, stopping and waiting for the river level to drop can be unpleasant, so people are motivated to cross in order to get to their destination where it is dry. Simply waiting for a few hours will usually be enough for a river level to drop again. So ensure you are ready for this by taking an emergency shelter and extra food.
  • Occasionally trampers have been in a rush to get out before dark, and have decided to take a short-cut by crossing a river, even though there was a bridge only a short distance away. Planning your trip effectively so you can achieve your goal and also have alternative routes set will avoid you getting in a similar situation.


What You Need to Know

Stop Before You Cross

If you’re not experienced in river crossings or identifying unsafe rivers, then avoid crossing rivers by selecting tracks that use bridges. Always be prepared to change your plans to avoid crossing a river. If you’re experienced in river crossings, you can always seek shelter and wait for the river level to drop.

Warning Signs of an Unsafe River 

  • Water moving faster than normal walking pace.
  • Discoloured, cloudy, surging water.
  • Visible debris in the river such as tree branches.
  • The sound of rolling boulders on the river bed.
If in doubt, stay out.


Carefully Choose Where to Cross

The choice of the safest place to cross is vital. Try to view the river from a high bank. You may be able to see gravel spits or sandbanks just below the surface and get some idea of the depth and position of channels. The safest place is one where the river is flat, is no higher than thigh-depth on the shortest person, and has no obstacles in the way.

River safety entry and exit points

Know How to Cross 

Mutual Support Method

Use the mutual support method (as shown in the video above). You'll want between 3 and

5 people. The more people in the party, the more strength there is for crossing and for supporting anyone who slips or falls. 

As a group, discuss where you will enter and where you will exit. Always choose an exit point which is downstream of the entry, and has no obstacles. 

As you cross, travel closely together in a line which is parallel to the current. Keep in constant communication with each other and travel slowly.

What if I'm alone?

We encourage people who are out there alone to not cross rivers by themselves unless they are very experienced. Wait for another party of people to come by, find a bridge or go back.


What to Do Next

Continue your preparation with our online resources, there is still plenty to learn to ensure for a safe and enjoyable trip!

Explore Our Resources

  • Try our interactive tool | and learn about River Safety.
  • Read our river safety info-sheet | A one-pager introducing you to river safety
  • Get more skills | Navigation, Trip Planning and more essentials in our Skills Section
  • Read our manuals | Access the NZ Bushcraft Manual and other digitised resources here
  • Watch our how-to videos | There are plenty more and useful tips in our video section
  • Plan My Walk app | Use our free planning tool to choose tracks, get alerts, build a gear list and share your plan with others before you go.

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